(Pictured: Paul plays live in California while “Silly Love Songs” sits at #1.)
Forty years ago this week, “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings hit #1 on the Hot 100. I asked my Facebook friends for their unfiltered impressions of the song, and here’s some of what they said:
—“Passable dreck. Until you square it with the knowledge it’s from the same person who wrote ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ ‘Maybe I’m Amazed,’ ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Lady Madonna,’ etc., etc., etc. Then it becomes unlistenable dreck.”
—“Stupid song that only got airplay because it was Paul McCartney.”
—“Not then, not now.”
—“In a word, sappy.”
—“A man in love with his wife taking a simple song premise and turning it into a six-minute trademark Macca pop epic. Not a personal favorite, but I appreciate it. As an occasional bass player, I can say this does have a fun bass line to bop along to.”
—“It’s a fine pop song with a great arrangement. The part where it picks up again after slowing down is fabulous. The lyrics aren’t exactly ‘Gimme Some Truth’ though, and McCartney sounds a bit constipated.”
—“I still enjoy it.”
—“Hated it when it was on the radio. Just detested it. I still don’t like it much, but I appreciate the craft more now than I did back then.”
—“I’ve come back around to a lot of his 70s stuff I didn’t like the first time out. Not this one, though.”
—“Superb bass line. Otherwise, good work from someone who had done far better. The Beatles were a tough act to follow.”
—“I’ve always thought that might have been one of those thrown-off songs. Catchy but senseless.”
Another friend said, “I could do without the sound of the milking machine at the beginning.” (It’s never been clear to me precisely what that sound is, but “milking machine” is a good guess.) Although it seems sensible to start the record with the thump of McCartney’s bass, the milking machine creates a feeling of expectation, like the overture before the show begins. Therefore, all versions of “Silly Love Songs” without that noise are inferior. (Another comment: “The full LP version: glorious, if a bit much. The single version: not as good.“) When Wings played the song on the Wings Over America tour in 1976, it started with the recorded noise.
That Paul McCartney’s songcraft is brilliant is something that’s just true, like the sun rising in the east every morning. The contrast between the milking machine and the opening bass thump is an example of that craft. Songcraft is often expressed best in little moments: where the horns come in at the end of the bridge, for one; the breakdown in the middle (“How / Can I tell / You about / My loved one”); and after the breakdown when the horns return (“the part where it picks up again after slowing down”)—each one is evidence of a creator with a sure grasp on what sounds pretty great. And listen to the string arrangement. (Did you remember that there was a string arrangement?)
One friend says that “Silly Love Songs” is “Paul getting back at his critics by giving them exactly what they’ve criticized him for—silly, sappy love songs.” Another friend reminds us that it was John Lennon who famously criticized McCartney’s lightweight solo output. And that makes “Silly Love Songs” the greatest burn in the history of burning. Damn right my songs are silly—and I’m going to buy a few thousand more acres of Scotland with the money the world pays me for them.
The comments quoted above are not the only ones I got; among my friends, positive and negative opinions seem about equally divided. Probably more divided than they were across America 40 years ago this week, however. By the time “Silly Love Songs” topped the Hot 100, it had already hit #1 in Tulsa, Tucson, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Washington, D.C. It would reach the top in many other cities across the country by the end of June. “Silly Love Songs” would be #1 in Billboard for the week of May 22, spend the next two weeks at #2 behind Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” and then ascend to the summit for four more weeks, knocked out for the week of July 10 by “Afternoon Delight.” It would be Billboard‘s #1 single for all of 1976, as it was at WFIL in Philadelphia, WHB in Kansas City, WYSL in Buffalo, and KOLA in San Bernardino, California. Millions of people couldn’t get enough of it, and it’s one of the songs I most closely identify with my favorite year.